Gene Stephenson’s career as Wichita State baseball coach might be too big for a book. Maybe one day the stories will be told in a series.
For now, Shocker fans will have to be content with “Wichita State Baseball Comes Back,” a 138-page book that details Stephenson’s arrival in 1977 through 1982, WSU’s first College World Series appearance in the College World Series. Author John Brown tells one of college baseball’s greatest stories, working from Stephenson’s sharp memories and Eagle’s microfilm archives.
If you’re looking for details or anger from Stephenson’s firing in June, you won’t find them in this book. Brown started on the book around three years ago, always with the intent of telling the story of the early years.
“It’s something that had never happened before, and may never happen again,” Stephenson said.
Brown ended the project amazed at Stephenson’s recall of events and places.
“Flawless,” Brown said. “He couldn’t remember all that the way he does if he hadn’t cared, deeply.”
Many Shocker fans have heard the lore of Stephenson starting work with no baseballs. They know about the flatbed trailers used for stands and the players dressing in cars. Those stories are told again, with plenty of anecdotes that have escaped popular retelling.
Did you know that WSU tried to revive baseball in 1973? It hired Jeff Pentland from Arizona State as coach-in-waiting. He left two years later with no progress. When Stephenson left his job as assistant coach at Oklahoma, Sooners coach Enos Semore let him bring his desk to WSU. On an early road trip, Stephenson kicked both his catchers off the team for missing curfew in Lubbock, Texas. He instructed assistant coach Terry Jolly to find them a long bus ride back to Wichita. Stephenson credits use of a toll-free telephone line, supplied by Coleman, for boosting his early recruiting efforts.
“We came here with a lot of aspirations,” he said. “It was harder than I ever dreamed.”
The book also details the apathy, at best, and borderlines sabotage, at worst, Stephenson endured from the athletic department. His team practiced on empty field, only if the marching band and soccer club didn’t claim a time slot. In 1980, Hawaii arrived for a two-game series and the university decided to start construction on dugouts that day, leaving trenches and piles of dirt in foul ground. For a 1981 trip, according to the book, a secretary tried to keep the team’s usual trainer at home to show Stephenson that he and his team mattered little.
“The whole point is, I’m not a quitter,” Stephenson said. “I’m never going to say that something can’t be done. I always believed.”
Stephenson admits early spring is a tough time for a man who started coaching college baseball in 1973. He might be interested in telling more of the story of Shocker baseball, but there are no plans.
“I’m more concerned at this point with what I want to do the rest of my life,” Stephenson said.
Broadcasting is a possibility. Stephenson worked 10 games at the American Legion World Series last summer in North Carolina for ESPN3.
“If the opportunity presented itself, I would love to, especially in college baseball,” he said. “I think I would have a good time doing it. There could be some opportunities this spring. There’s a number of things I’m looking into.”
Stephenson maintains he won’t force his way back into coaching to chase Texas coach Augie Garrido for the top of college baseball’s wins list. He has talked several times with new WSU coach Todd Butler and said he is rooting for the Shockers.
“Those players, to a man, every one of them know I want them to win, I want them to be playing in the College World Series,” he said.
It’s a scenario that mars the start college baseball each season. The NCAA suspends players for violating its “no agent” rule during negotiations with a professional team. Players are allowed to use an “adviser” after being drafted. Hiring an agent is not allowed, and the difference is hard for even those involved to understand. Advisers usually become the agent after a contract is signed.
Wetzler, picked in the fifth round by Philadelphia in June, is suspended for 11 games for violating the rule.
It’s a rule that drives college athletes and coaches batty because they see it as almost impossible to enforce and widely violated. Former Shocker pitcher Albert Minnis missed 30 games in 2011 when his adviser initiated two calls and four text messages with the Atlanta Braves, the team that drafted him out of Lawrence in the 33rd round.
“The NCAA’s inconsistency and hypocrisy when it comes to applications of the ‘no agent’ rule never cease to gall,” Baseball America’s Aaron Fitt wrote in 2011. “That rule is trampled upon by nearly every college player who is drafted, every single year. Put aside the uneven enforcement of that arcane rule — most of the time, the NCAA simply cannot enforce the rule, because players and agents and major-league clubs all lie out of necessity to protect players’ eligibility. This is simple fact — it’s how the baseball industry works.”
Minnis, now with the Houston Astros organization, urges drafted players to protect themselves. There are no consequences for the agent or the pro teams from the NCAA. Much of the confusion stems from the gray areas between an adviser and an agent.
“I don’t fault anybody for what happened,” he said. “I stepped onto campus and had no idea I did anything wrong. I got an adviser so I wouldn’t do anything wrong. The adviser-agent relationship with the player, it’s too blurred.”
The contact between the agent and the Braves weren’t about money; they discussed Minnis’ performance.
“It’s the biggest decision of my life and I want as much help in that as possible,” Minnis said. “The NCAA, sometimes, wants to limit contact with agents. All it does is hurt the player in the end.”
Former Shocker Jordan Cooper had no problems with the NCAA before his freshman season. It helped that he had his father, an attorney, to lean on after Boston drafted him in the 17th round out of Shawnee Heights.
“I think a player shouldn’t be punished for trying to look out for what’s best in his career,” he said. It’s ridiculous to put that on a teenager. That’s a huge decision to make. Punishing a kid for exploring his options … that’s, in my opinion, crazy.”
Wetzler’s suspension is scheduled to end Sunday.